If a purpose of Lent is repentance, then the church—divided, shallow, not known for its love—could use a good Lent. Unfortunately, we practice Lent in such private ways that our Lenten season is unlikely to help.
In my own life for instance, for Lent I’ve fasted on Fridays (a diet in spiritual disguise), given up social media (an attempt to calm my monkey-on-meth mind), and tried to avoid negative talk (a psychological strategy to be happier). While none of these disciplines are bad, they lean more toward self-improvement projects than a repentance that will heal the church.
Lent was originally called the Quadragesima which means “the fortieth.” It recalls Israel’s forty years in the desert. God’s purpose was to purify, instruct, and form a people who would be a light to the world.
The gospel of Matthew recounts how Jesus spent forty days in the desert re-enacting in his own person Israel’s “Lent.” It wasn’t because Jesus had botched his New Year’s resolutions. The purpose was to model for Israel what it would mean to resist the temptations of provisions (bread), power (commanding God’s angels), and prestige (rule over the nations) in favor of trust in God.
Then, although Jesus didn’t get out the stone tablet visual aids, he climbed a hill to re-enact Moses’ forty days on Mt. Sinai receiving the law. Jesus gave the “Sermon on the Mount,” his own “fulfill the law” instruction meant to reform a divided, shallow, not-known-for-its-love Israel.
Why, in these “Lenten” 40 day/year events, were God and Jesus so focused on creating a holy group? Why didn’t they give up and settle for some righteous individuals?
It’s because the gospel isn’t an escape hatch for the individual when all Armageddon breaks out. Although the New Testament holds out the promise of eternal life and a new heaven and earth, Jesus’ central message was that “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” Jesus’ desire was for a group of people (Israel) to live his Lordship in all areas of life—social, economic, political, and spiritual. As Jesus describes it in the Sermon on the Mount, a group of people living as a city would give light and bless the world (Matt 5:14). As the scriptural story unfolds, Gentiles are also invited to join in on that adventure through a community called “church.”
As kids, some of us learned to sing, “This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine!” Which was fun. We’d wave our pretend finger candles and then blow them out with as much wind and spit as we could muster. But the song misses Jesus’ point. Jesus wasn’t trying to just create privately pious individuals, but rather a city of light—a community. And, if we go into the desert of Lent alone, we miss the purpose of Lent.
To stress the importance of this, I’m going to reach a bit. If we just give up chocolate for Lent, we open the door to Hitler. I know, I know. Reductio ad Hitlerum ad Nazism. But stick with me and see what you think.
In 1900, the German theologian Adolf von Harnack published What is Christianity? (Das Wesen des Christentums) in which he writes about Christianity, “It is not a matter of angels and devils, nor of principalities and powers, but of God and the soul, of the soul and its God.”
Harnack made Christianity radically individual and interior. “The point on which everything turns,” he writes, is “to know God as One’s Father, to possess a God of grace, to find comfort in His grace and providence, to believe in the forgiveness of sins.” While other elements of his theology acknowledged the social nature of Christianity, he contributed to the idea that the Kingdom of God is made real in the interior heart rather than the exterior world.
Because of this teaching by theologians like Adolf von Harnack, when another Adolf came along, Christians offered sparse and pathetic resistance. Their churches had not taught them how to resist the devilish principalities and powers of their time. They saw Christianity as personal, not political. They had not been formed as a people into the political, economic, social, and spiritual ethics of God’s kingdom.
As a result, they pledged allegiance to the Third Reich over God’s kingdom, killed millions of enemies, and slaughtered their chosen-people-of-God immigrant population: the Jews. And all the while they were presumably convinced of God’s grace, comfort, providence, and forgiveness.
Okay . . . so maybe it was an over-reach. Go ahead and give up the chocolate if you want to (or think of it this way, I’m giving you a reason to not give up chocolate!). My point is that Christians who see faith in radically individual terms rarely oppose the oppressive powers-that-be such as nationalism, bloated military budgets, and anti-immigrant sentiment. We need ways to help Christians see the formational importance of the church—of being a moral community. And that is where Lent, if well-practiced, can help.
Before I get into what that might look like, however, I should note that there is also a danger on the other side. Those of us who tend toward social activism sometimes think that Jesus’ social, political, and economic teaching is directed at the nation-state. This can lead to the focus being all about getting the right people elected and the right policies enacted. But, if those of us who confess Jesus as Lord don’t act like Jesus is Lord (through acts of love of and service), why do we think that people who don’t acknowledge Christ will be willing to act as if he is Lord? We need a group of people who are doing God’s will before we have a prophetic witness to the world.
For both Christian pietists and Christian social activists—as Nathan Hatch points out so well in his excellent article The Political Captivity of the Faithful—we need the church to be a place of moral formation in the space between the individual and the nation-state. He cites the wisdom of Richard Niebuhr, “The question of the church . . . is not how it can measure up to the expectations of society nor what it must do to become a savior of civilization, but rather how it can be true to itself: that is, to its Head.” Hatch goes on to quote Niebuhr’s prescription that the church should “undergo silence, humility, repentance, and the naming of idols.”
It would be hard to think of a better ideal for Lent. How might we practice such a Lent? Here are some suggestions:
Practice Lent with others. Ideally, people from your church. The beginning of Lent—Ash Wednesday—comes relatively early this year: February 26th. If possible, find one or two or five or ten other people and observe Lent together. If these can be people from your church, or from a church-based small group, all the better. Is there something like prayer, simplicity, or service, that you are all passionate about? Find one way to practice that passion together.
Some concrete ideas might include: Agree together that you won’t talk badly about others. Throw a party in which you invite people outside your usual social circle. Develop a practice of conversation with Christians of different political perspectives than yourselves. Support an immigrant together.
Study the Sermon on the Mount together over Lent. While it is a good thing to give up certain things for Lent, we also need a positive vision for the good practices we should take up. The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’ imaginative and extravagant vision of what it means to be a holy community. What would it mean to take up a modern practice equivalent to walking an extra mile, leaving one’s sacrifice to reconcile, or lending to anyone who asks? Many excellent books interact with the sermon such as theologian and communitarian Clarence Jordan’s Sermon on the Mount, or African-American preacher and theologian Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited.
I’ve developed a Lenten curriculum called Love for Lent which takes participants through the Sermon on the Mount and suggests weekly corporate practices. If you want to check it out, you can find it here.
Finally, make the most of the opportunity that is Lent. One pastor observed that Christians live in the land of “Repent-a-Lot.” One of the most attractive things Christians can do is to admit our own faults and to find Kingdom ways to love and bless the world. It is worth giving our energy, creativity, and imagination to such a project. Rather than just doing something like giving up sugar for Lent, let’s see Lent as an opportunity. It is a chance, in the words of Hebrews 12:1 to “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles,” and run together toward all the good that’s intended for the church and the world.